Who is the real Narendra Modi? The one that reached out to Islamabad in the first flush of his election victory, inviting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his oath-taking, and exchanging shawls and sarees with him for their mothers? Or the one that on Tuesday sneered that Pakistan “has lost the ability to fight a conventional war, but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism”? What Prime Minister Modi said is not factually wrong. Even in Pakistan there is acknowledgement that the ISI unleashed militant groups against India. But if the intention of the Modi government is to engage a problematic neighbour in talks, as conveyed by the decision only weeks ago to resume official-level dialogue, making deliberately provocative statements is not a good way to kick off. Political leaders do tend to tailor their speeches to their audience, and the Prime Minister’s remark came during an interaction with soldiers at Leh. Mr. Sharif conceivably might have made a similarly provocative remark to a similar audience on the other side. Except that he did not. Addressing a conference on national security last week, where the audience included Army chief General Raheel Sharif, ISI boss Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, and other members of Pakistan’s security and civilian establishment, Mr. Sharif expressed regret that his country did not have good ties with India and said it was time to work towards achieving that.
Common sense demands that India should be doing whatever it can diplomatically to strengthen Mr. Sharif’s hands, or at the very least do or say nothing that will serve to undermine him. Mr. Modi could not have been unaware that even as he spoke in Ladakh, some 400 km across the border, in Islamabad, the Pakistan Prime Minister was preparing for a battle for his government’s survival. The cleric-turned-political adventurer Tahir ul Qadri, and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan have joined hands and vowed to unseat Mr. Sharif. The world over, the democratically accepted way to do this is through elections. But both Mr. Qadri and Mr. Khan want instant gratification. They plan to lead a march on the Pakistani capital from Lahore along with their followers on August 14, Independence Day, and lay siege to the city until Mr. Sharif steps down. With the government locking down the capital and all roads leading to it, and the possibility of a law and order breakdown looming large, the Pakistan military is said to be weighing its options. It has no love lost for Mr. Sharif, and distrusts him particularly because he wants good relations with India. Mr. Modi’s statement can only reinforce a view in Pakistan that their Prime Minister is bending over backwards to please New Delhi, and will strengthen those seeking to dislodge him. Eventually, that can only go against the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations.